A matter of inches: corsets make a comeback

An exploration of the 21st century corset renaissance, spurred by icons from Madonna to McQueen.

photo showing a corset worn by madonna on display
Madonna famously rocked the corset on her Blond Ambition Tour

Corsets are tangled in a variety of associations, bringing to mind anything from archaic eras of fashion to bondage fetishes. Personally, the story of my great-great-grandmother comes to mind. According to family myth, her hatred of wearing corsets drove her to embrace pregnancy as an almost permanent state of being – it was only during pregnancy that she was officially dismissed from wearing it. This tactic resulted in her having twelve children and these are just the pregnancies that she carried to term. Imagine the risks of childbirth at the time!

Can wearing a corset really be this awful? The generations of women after my great-great-grandmother were united in saying, ‘Yes!’

Early women’s rights activists with the backing of doctors began to campaign against the corset during the nineteenth century. Their success transformed corsets into a symbol of female oppression. The corset was displaced by bralettes, step-ins and other alternatives by the 1920s, and ‘casting off the corset’ as since denoted a turn towards liberated, healthier and independent women.

But fashion is a long way from fully abandoning corsets. Dior’s uber-feminine ‘new look’ dresses from 1947 evoked a silhouette of tiny waists and accentuated hips thanks to their underbust corset with attached petticoats. The feminist movement of the sixties then swept the corseted waist out of mainstream aesthetic once again. But from the 1990s onwards, the likes of Gaultier’s corset-inspired outfits for Madonna’s Blonde Ambition Tour and evening gowns by McQueen or Mugler have created the base for a twenty-first century corset revival.

As corsets lost their place in everyday wear, they gained creative potential, Nowadays, they can be underwear or outerwear, inspiration or construction, accessory or medical necessity. And they have certainly not stopped being fashion.

In the 90s Gaultier first sent his famous corset dress on the runway. In 1995, McQueen’s The Bird Spring/Summer Collection featured an appearance from Mr Pearl, a lacer and corsetiere who was sent down the runway in an extremely tailored blazer. Thierry Muggler used real, steel-boned corsets as a shaping part underneath a couture dress. These methods are far from outdated, and the legacy of the corset remains subtly present in fashion today: just look at modern wedding dresses with semi-functional lacing, or evening dresses with suggested boning channels. They all use visual elements that were originally part of the construction of a corset.

But why is the steel-boned corset experiencing a renaissance now?

Third wave feminism encourages individual expression like never before, combined with an unapologetic celebration of femininity. While our mothers burned their bras, we can reclaim and redefine the aesthetic of a patriarchal and heteronormative society. Red lipstick, push-up bras, all-over pink, or corsets. As long as it’s your choice, anything goes.

As subcultures like burlesque and drag gain recognition, corsets are returning into the spotlight. World-famous burlesque dancer Dita von Teese started performing in corsets in the 1990s. Drag performers and female impersonators have long used corsets for a more feminine appearance. Thanks to the popular American TV show ‘Ru’Paul’s Drag Race’ their art now has a growing audience all over the world. When Violet Chachki shows off her tiny 18-inch corseted waist, who is not holding their breath in amazement (or maybe solidarity)?

New techniques in the design process has reshaped the corset: current corsetieres are not simply continuing a tradition but are actively reinventing it. Laser-cutting allows for greater precision than a tailor could ever manage with scissors. Computer simulation allows perfect fittings, even with complicated designs and materials. Artificial whale boning made from plastic provides the same elasticity without harming animals.

Curiosity led me down a path of experimental fashion archaeology and I tried wearing a corset myself. I was immensely fascinated with my new look, examining the outline of my corseted waist in a series of pictures. Other people’s reactions were interesting. Some assumed this was a new kink, whilst others were concerned I had back problems. Well, neither reason applies! My great-great-grandmother could only escape the corset with medical reasons not to wear one, but today it appears that people expect an external reason to justify wearing one. But they couldn’t be more wrong. Modern corsets are worn for one and one reason alone: because the wearer wants to do so.